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Metabolix: the Post-ADM Update

It’s been a very busy summer, but I had a chance to catch up with Rick Eno, the CEO of Metabolix, last week. Metabolix makes a bio-based plastic that it calls Mirel, though chemists call it a polyhydroxyalkanoate polymer (PHA). We last heard from Metabolix in January when its commercial-scale partnership with Archer Daniels Midland dissolved.

The breakup was a significant blow to the company in terms of growing its business and selling Mirel to customers. The partnership with ADM was based around an ADM-financed production plant capable of making 50,000 tons of Mirel per year. Unfortunately, sales ramped up slowly and ADM said the market was too risky.

Since the breakup, Metabolix has decided to launch the biodegradable Mirel bioplastic under its own nameplate, says Eno. It has transferred inventory from ADM, and brought over all the business operations. Still, the company needs a production partner.

“Since Mirel was exclusive to ADM for so long, [after the breakup] we did get inbound calls and we also reached out to potential partners to establish potential manufacturing,” Eno told C&EN. He says that rather than try to sell enough Mirel to keep a huge plant busy, he’s now looking for something closer to a 10,000 ton per year scale.

“We’ve narrowed down a large number of potential opportunities to four. Now we’re looking at engineering detail for integration of our manufacturing technology to the partners’ asset sets,” Eno reports. “We’re deeply evaluating a short list of manufacturing options.” Without ADM to center the business, Metabolix can look outside the U.S. – for example, to be closer to customers. In fact, the firm has opened a sales office in Cologne, Germany to be close to the European market.

As Alex Tullo wrote in his recent cover story on biodegradable plastics, an important market niche is in organic waste handling – specifically in municipalities where organic waste is separated and hauled to composting facilities. Eno suggests this is both a good niche for PHA, and also a great reason to be in Europe where people rigorously sort their trash.

Eno followed up on his January comments that the company would look to higher-value markets that really require biodegradability, rather than try to compete with cheap and plentiful petro-based plastics. He said the company is focusing on agriculture and horticultural markets – for things like biodegradable plastic mulch; the consumer market for compostable bags and similar products for organic waste diversion; a broader packaging market; and a marine and aquatic segment where it is important that plastics biodegrade fully in oceans and streams.

The breakup with ADM somewhat ironically boosted Metabolix’s cash position (for some rather complicated accounting reasons). That will be a big help, because the company is still developing its upcoming portfolio of bio-based C3 and C4 chemicals, using different PHA molecules than Mirel uses as an intermediate. Example target chemicals are gamma butyrolactone and acrylic acid. The C4 program is the farthest along and has reached 60,000 liter fermenters in scale-up. Eno says the chemicals program has netted “significant partner interest.”

Also helping to pay the bills is a government grant backing the company’s efforts to put the bio-based plastic platform into purpose-grown plants. In a recent advance, Metabolix and its research partners have reported a new way to increase polyhydroxybutyrate (PHB) production in sugar cane.

So there you have it – Metabolix is still moving along. The next time we will hear from them, Eno says, it will be because they have a new production partnership to announce. Stay tuned.

France to Ban Pesticide To Protect Honey Bees

French Agriculture Minister Stephane Le Foll said on Friday that the country plans to ban the use of a neonicotinoid pesticide used as a seed coating for the oil crop rapeseed, over concerns of its sub-lethal effects on honey bees, Reuters reports.

The Le Foll said his agency had investigated results reported in Science (see C&EN’s coverage by Lisa Wilson) that suggested bee behavoir was altered when bees were exposed to neonicotinoids as they foraged for nectar. Results from that research and others reviewed by the French agency for food, environmental and occupational safety showed sub-lethal effects that caused bees to not return to the hive, a behavoir that could weaken bee colonies. The agency issued a release about its findings – in English – which you can read here.

As a result, France now plans to withdraw the permit for Syngenta’s Cruiser OSR pesticide, when used as a seed coating for rapeseed. Cruiser includes one type of neonicotinoid called thiamethoxam. The rapeseed flower produces nectar that is harvested by honey bees.  It is one route of exposure that recent research has investigated.

As C&EN and the Cleantech Chemistry blog have reported, research on possible causes for widespread collapse of honey bees – both in the U.S. and Europe – is ongoing. Neonicotinoid pesticides have been a focus of some of the research, as have parasites, viruses, and various modern agricultural practices such as monocultures.

The move by France has brought responses from the EU, Syngenta, and the European Crop Protection Association. These groups acknowledge that research shows that bees are negatively affected by neonicotinoids but they say the manner of exposure and the likely amount of exposure is likely much lower than what has been tested. Meanwhile, France has asked the EU to add tests for sub-lethal impacts on bees to its protocol for approving the use of pesticides.


Energy Conversion Devices: the other story

For many years of its history, Energy Conversion Devices had more cleantech and related business going on than this blog has categories for. The 51 year-old company filed for bankruptcy on Valentine’s Day, after having failed to generate sufficient revenues from its main business, United Solar Ovonics.

Tech writers are focusing on the Solar part of the tale, which is understandable because it neatly fits into a pattern of high-cost solar makers taking a tumble in the face of low-cost Chinese competitors. But what I found fascinating about the firm is the part referred to as Ovonics.

The word Ovonics was coined by ECD’s founder, Stanford R. Ovshinsky. He took the first two letters of his name and added the end of electronics to create a sort-of blanket term describing the way a bit of energy can convert amorphous and disordered materials into structured crystalline materials. It also covers the reverse process. The various energy and information applications that Ovshinksy put his inventive mind to include nickel-metal hydride batteries, LCD screens, read-write CDs, amorphous silicon thin-film solar material (and a nifty machine to make it), hydrogen fuel cells, and phase change electronic memory. It would be hard to imagine American life without many of these technologies – and some are still to come.

He is considered a Hero of Chemistry by the American Chemical Society. At 88 years old, he is still inventing at his new company Ovshinsky Innovations (he left ECD in 2007). The curious part of the tale is that Ovshinsky is self-taught – he didn’t go to college or graduate school. And his inventions began with research on energy and information that he pursued in the 1950s and 60s.

ECD started out as a laboratory – founded in 1960 – before it became a company. Even as a business, it ran more like a stand-alone research laboratory – think Bell Labs or Xerox labs without the rest of the corporation. The company brought in money by doing everything other than making and selling products - it had equity investors, research grants, and many collaborations along with a bit of licensing revenue.

It seemed to be always on the cusp of the big time, but it was ahead of its time. In some ways it was both ahead and behind at the same time. It had already licensed  the nickel-metal hydride rechargeable battery years before it powered the Toyota Prius. Now electric cars will have lithium-ion batteries. ECD made thin-film solar that would find a niche in building integrated photovoltaics, but that niche still is not large enough to save the solar business. Yet its cost structure still belongs to the solar industry of five years ago.

Ovshinsky was also ahead of his time when he focused his work on renewable energy to break the world’s dependence on petroleum.

I don’t know ECD intimately but as an outsider, it seems that the company likely lost its driving force when it lost Ovshinsky five years ago. The management wanted to concentrate on making the company profitable – so it focused on solar energy, which was experiencing a boom. That was a bet that did not pay off.

Biofuels from Seaweed

The concept of making biofuels from seaweed has been floating around as an idea for a while now, but this week there were a few real news items about it. Well, I consider it real news when it makes the cover of Science


Seaweed in your tank? Credit:
Melody Bomgardner

Following the theme that any ready source of carbon, not already used for something, is a prime target for biofuel prospectors, scientists are working to create microorganisms that can break down seaweeed alginates into sugar, and then make ethanol from it.

The microbe is our friend E. coli

, and researchers at Bio Architecture Lab, a biofuel and renewable chemicals company in Berkeley, Calif. have added genes that allow E. coli to first break down alginates into smaller bits, digest those more sugar-like bits, and then spit out ethanol.  Unlike in the processes usually used for cellulosic ethanol, the Science article writers claim their bacteria can chomp seaweed without chemical or heat pre-treatment.

If seaweed as cover model isn’t convincing, a second seaweeed-flavored item announced this week is a new collaboration between enzyme maker Novozymes and an Indian seaweed company called Sea6 Energy. “The research alliance will use enzymes to convert seaweed-based carbohydrates to sugar, which can then be fermented to produce ethanol for fuel, fine chemicals, proteins for food, and fertilizers for plants,” says the press release. (I read that to mean the non-sugar portion would be made into food and fertilizer – if sugar can be made into protein I’m going to have to change my diet).

Here’s the benefits that the seaweed pushers are claiming: seaweed has a high sugar content (presumably after those enzymes get to working), they don’t require irrigation (ha! no kidding) or fertilizer, and of course, duh, they don’t take up cropland. Seaweed – also called macroalgae by some – can be raised and harvested without those fancy bioreactors used by algae-to-fuel operators.

Seaweed can, however, be a purpose-grown crop. In fact, Sea6 already has a supply chain set up for that, as do firms like the chemical company FMC that harvest and process seaweed for the food markets. Alginate and carrageenen are already big business helping to make your low-fat Ranch dressing taste creamy (see Call in the Food Fixers for more on seaweed in your food).

But what works for the high-margin food additives business may not be profitable for the lower-margin fuel industry. Still, it’s an idea that’s spreading.

GM, BMW, Toyota: More Work to do on Batteries

A few days after GM magnanimously offered to give loaner cars to any Volt driver who might experience post-crash burning battery problems, BMW and Toyota announced that they would work together to develop lithium ion batteries for hybrids and all-electric cars.

This is what BMW’s Klaus Draeger had to say about why it was neccesary for the two auto giants to join forces:

Battery technology is crucial for the future of hybrid technology  – but also for the future of individual mobility. Whoever has  the best batteries in terms of function, cost, and quality in their  vehicles will win more customers. We want to set benchmarks in the  future with both: hybrid and electric cars.

It clearly makes sense for experienced and innovative companies to  pool their expertise and power with such future-orientated  technologies. Toyota and the BMW Group are perfect partners: Toyota is  the most sustainable and experienced producer in the high-volume  segment. And Japan, of course, is the country that has made hybrid  cars well known around the globe.

BMW will help out Toyota by supplying it with what it calls clean diesel engines that the Japanese firm can use to improve the cars it would like to sell in Europe, where diesel engines are preferred. Draeger characterized the battery partnership as involving basic research. Generally speaking, things like range and charging times are the main targets for research but…

BMW's all electric i3 concept car. Credit: BMW

GM’s experience with the Volt suggests that safety issues are still in play. Lithium ion batteries can reach high (flammable) temperatures if the separator material between the anode and cathode is breached, causing a short in the battery. That is why the problem with the Volt seems to happen in cars after impact  (crashed on purpose for safety testing) – presumably something compromised the separator in the battery.

Lithium ion car batteries come in different designs. Interestingly, no similar problems have yet been reported for the all-electric Nissan Leaf. Still, they commonly feature many individual battery cells that are grouped together and surrounded by an active management system that is supposed to prevent runaway reactions that would lead to fire. I suspect that these systems are still a p0int of design weakness. Even if they work pretty well, it seems a more competitive design for a lithium ion car battery would be one that does not require an additional surrounding system to prevent disaster.  (Some would call this “inherently safer design”)

To read more about the safety testing that revealed the Volt’s possible fire issues, check out the coverage in the New York Times.


Why FedEx is an Early Adopter of Transportation Tech

My colleague Steve Ritterrecently attended a conference about electrofuels. Electrofuels are made by using energy from the sun and renewable inorganic feedstocks such as carbon dioxide and water, processes facilitated by nonphotosynthetic microorganisms or by using earth-abundant metal catalysts.

The conference was attended by researchers and at least one early adopter who is ready to give them a try. Cleantech Chemistry is pleased to have Steve’s report on what he learned. [Edit: You can read Steve's story on electrofuels in this week's issue]

FedEx operates more than 680 aircraft and 90,000 motorized vehicles, including delivery vans and airport and warehouse support vehicles such as forklifts. Dennis R. Beal, the company’s vice president for global vehicles gave a talk at the conference explaining why FedEx is open to many new fuel and other transportation technologies that likely would not reach the masses for years, if ever.

A FedEx all-electric vehicle pauses at the Oklahoma City airport in front of a FedEx Airbus A310. Credit: FedEx

Although FedEx is a service company, “what we sell as a product is certainty—if you absolutely positively have to get it there, use FedEx,” said Beal. Beal gave a keynote talk during the Society for Biological Engineering’s inaugural conference on electrofuels research, which was held on Nov. 6–9, in Providence, R.I.

“That means we have a very high standard for our vehicles that pick up and deliver packages,” Beal added. “We have to be very careful in making business decisions to not negatively impact our ability to deliver certainty for our customers.”

With that philosophy, about 20 years ago FedEx starting taking a holistic view at transportation options, including battery and fuel-cell electric, hybrid, biofuel, and natural gas vehicles. “If it relates to fuel in any form, or alternative engines and drive trains, we are keenly interested,” Beal said.

The company has retrofitted delivery vans itself and partnered with vehicle manufacturers, electric utilities, electric equipment providers, and federal agencies on other fronts. FedEx even teamed up with the nonprofit group Environmental Defense Fund when pioneering the first hybrid electric delivery vehicles. Beal related that he and his colleagues have had a long climb up the learning curve searching for the most efficient transportation technologies that are safe, user friendly, meet driving range requirements, and offer a secure supply of affordable electricity or alternative fuel.

“We have tried a little bit of everything to see where these different technologies will and won’t work, Beal said. “We share the results with the rest of the delivery industry—the goal is to help advance the technology so that it will be widely adopted, not just for ourselves, but to help build scale to bring the cost down for everyone.”

FedEx has built its fleet to now contain 43 all-electric vehicles, 365 diesel hybrid and gasoline hybrid vehicles, and nearly 380 natural gas vehicles. In addition, the company has some 500 forklifts and 1,600 airport ground support electric and alternative-fuel vehicles in service.

The prototypes have a long way to go to be cost comparative with internal combustion engines, Beal said. For example, a typical all-electric delivery van costs $180,000 compared with $40,000 for a gasoline or diesel version. A consolation is that electric vehicles are 70% less costly to operate. “We believe the cost is going to come down and be economically viable in the long term,” Beal noted. “But given the logistics and needs of different regions—city versus rural and colder versus warmer climates—there is no one solution that fits all.”

FedEx plans to use a collection of approaches—gasoline, diesel, biofuel, hybrid, electric, fuel cell, and natural gas—and choose the right vehicle for each mission, Beal said. “What will drive adoption, once a technology passes the certainty test, is not that it is elegant, but that it also makes economic sense.”

More on Metabolix: “densified switchgrass”

Though it is technically a word (according to Merriam-Webster), I’m not sure “densify” would make my C&EN editors happy, so I’m going to use it here on the blog. Last week we learned that Metabolix was awarded $6 million in USDA/DOE grant money to densify switchgrass.

Today, the company issued a press release with a bit more detail on the research. And it seems that to densify a biomass really means to get more good stuff out of a given volume (weight?) of material. In fact, Metabolix wants to “produce densified biomass with transportation and fuel properties closely matching coal.”

In addition to growing switchgrass with an ever larger percentage of their star bio-based plastic (polyhydroxyalkanoates or PHA), Metabolix has now confirmed the route (or a route)  it plans to take to obtain C4 chemicals from the engineered plants. It will use a thermolysis process to obtain crotonic acid (C4H6O2), which can in turn be converted into chemical intermediates such as butanol and propylene.

USDA’s Vilsack Visits Agrivida

Baby switchgrass plants grow own enzymes. Credit: C&EN

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack visited biotech start-up Agrivida in Bedford, Mass. today to talk about USDA’s wise investments in R&D operations looking to make fuels from biomass. Prior to his remarks, he took a tour of the 40-employee firm’s lab space to see how they are spending some $3 million in government grant money. C&EN feels pretty wise, too, because it visited Agrivida almost a year ago for a similar tour.

The company was founded by two young entrepreneurs with freshly minted PhD’s in chemical engineering from MIT. Jeremy Johnson and R. Michael Raab found a way to engineer plants (the green variety) to produce the enzymes that cellulosic ethanol producers normally have to add to biomass to derive the sugars that can then be fermented into ethanol (got that?). Those enzymes can get pretty pricey, so if the plants can make them, then fuel producers might save a buck.

And saving a buck – especially if you’re in government – is all the rage these days. In his brief remarks, the Secretary said three times that his agency knows it needs to “spend less and spend wisely.” He said that government spending to spur innovation to make sugar-based fuels more cheaply – and competitive with fossil fuels – would help to “restructure the rural economy” and he predicted that “biorefineries will be dotting the landscape around rural communities” which will bring many jobs.

This week, USDA teamed up with DOE to award biomass R&D grants to eight projects that all have an eye on the bottom line. It’s clear that the government grant award-pickers are well versed on the financial (as well as technical) hurdles that the biomass-to-whatever industry faces. For example, the $5.1 million grant to Exelus, a firm in Livingston, N.J., will support “work to develop energy crops with improved tolerance to drought and salt stress to enhance yields on marginal lands,” and it will also ”redesign a process to make hydrocarbon fuels using new catalysts and chemistry that avoids the high temperatures and large energy inputs required by current processes.”

It’s Sappy – Ford’s plan for Dandelions

Cleantech chemistry doesn’t know where you, dear reader, are sitting right now. But it’s quite likely that if you look out your window at the nearest patch of green, you will see some of these ubiquitous weeds:

Not the Russian variety, but you get the idea. Credit: C&EN

But as gardeners will tell you, it’s only a weed if it appears where it is not wanted. But dandelions ARE wanted in Wooster, Ohio, where a team of agricultural researchers are right this very moment tending to a crop of Taraxacum kok-saghyz or Russian Dandelions. The milky sap of the plant’s taproot contains a high-quality rubber that mirrors the performance characteristics of the Brazilian rubber tree, source of almost all natural rubber.
 Researchers at The Ohio State University’s Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center will provide samples of rubber to Ford Motor Company. Ford says it is interested in blending the rubber with various plastics and using the flexible materials in auto interiors for cup holders, floormats, and trim.
What Ford does not mention, however,  is that the research picks up on an interesting piece of U.S. industrial history.  

Metabolix to get $6M From DOE for Denser Switchgrass

Metabolix is one of 8 firms and research organizations named in a Department of Energy grant program that will put $47 million to work making biomass more productive for fuels and chemicals. All in an effort, of course, to unhitch our economy from fossil fuels.

Switchgrass Credit: Steven Ausmus/USDA

Metabolix already has a way to make bio-based plastics (polyhydroxyalkanoate, or PHA resins) from sugars, and has been doing it at commercial scale with agro partner Archer Daniels Midland. But it has also been spending a great deal of its resources upstream on the biomass end, and can grow switchgrass with PHA inside it.

 The DOE award will give the firm $6 million (actually, it’s $6,000,001. not sure what the extra buck is for) to, in their words “use high temperature conversion to produce denser biomass and other products that can be further processed to make fuels such as butanol, chemicals such as propylene and other materials to improve the economic competitiveness of future biorefineries.”

I will admit to not fully grasping the meaning of “to produce denser biomass” yet, but I’ll be looking out for more details. Still, this announcement hit 7 of my cleantech topic categories (see above!) so it’s well worth mentioning now.

Metabolix was one of the earlier cleantech firms to IPO (helpful to do so before  worldwide recession, is the lesson here). Laurence Alexander of Jeffries & Co. is a fan of the stock, rating the firm a “buy.” He had this to say in a note to clients about the DOE/Metabolix grant: “ We view the announcement as incrementally positive. It should help Metabolix strengthen its technology platform while reducing concerns that the early-stage research into the switchgrass PHA platform could represent a cash drain that detracts from the more timely PHA plastic and PHA-based chemicals platforms.”  Sounds like Metabolix will be able to walk and chew gum at the same time, thanks to this announcement.

On a related note, the news value around the word “switchgrass” has been rather low of late. In this Google Trends chart, you can see little activity in last few years.

Google Trends for "Switchgrass" in search and news

A great deal of attention in the biofuels segment has focused on cellulosic waste materials (wood chips, corn cobs etc) or gassification of biomass. Switchgrass was hot when the nation was going to grow dedicated crops for bio-based energy. We’ll have to see if a new research push will bring it back into the public eye.